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Blazing a path to heath and happiness: Collingwood promotes trails

How Collingwood, Ontario, transformed from its proud 150-year industry-based port and shipbuilding and manufacturing center into a trails-rich recreational destination.

By Peter Dunbar B.S.Ed, HRT, CMM

"Trails walking and riding on free and accessible trails are taking center stage in the Ontario strategy to reduce health care costs."

Collingwood, Ontario, sits on the edge of Southern Georgian Bay in Canada, a vast fresh water expanse known for its rocky tree-lined coastline, wild wind and big sky. The land mass features a shelf-like flat stretch of bush and apple orchards ending with the thrilling elevations of the Niagara Escarpment. The area is known for its trail riding and walking and cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, which allows for an abundance of natural experiences in a green but distinctly urban setting with the 32 kilometer Georgian Trail— a former railway line trail— linking a string of small coastal communities.

The town boasts 24,000 full-time residents and 10,000 part-time residents and is part of Simcoe County, whose population has recorded a higher-than-provincial average incidence of obesity, smoking, and chronic disease and a higher-than-average rate of physical activity (Discovering Healthy, Active Directions- South Georgian Bay Community Action Plan 2005-2010).

The dichotomy represented by the county statistics speaks of the convergence of developments of the last 20 years in Collingwood. Its 120-plus kilometers of trails, created in less than 20 years, starts with visionary leaders and an important provincial decision to devolve its ownership of a network of local railway lines and allow for local communities to develop linear parks or trails. It takes us to the present, with the recent publication of a provincial trails strategy published by the newly created Ministry of Health Promotions and the 2005 Collingwood Trails Network Survey and Report.  

While studies linking heath with physical activity are well known, the provincial government has taken steps to produce a change in habits for all residents in order to reduce long-term medical costs. While free medical care is unique to Canada and an important part of our national identity, the commitment to health care for all citizens regardless of income continues to spiral up the costs.

Trails walking and riding on free and accessible trails are taking center stage in the Ontario strategy to reduce health care costs. Collingwood has written trails development into the official plan, which makes any development in the future provide for linkage to the existing trails system.

How has Collingwood transformed in less than 20 years from its proud 150-year industry-based port and shipbuilding and manufacturing center into a trails-rich recreational destination? An influx of affluent, retired "Baby Boomers' attracted to the area because of its abundance of outdoor recreational pursuits drives both the development of trails and the growth of housing clusters set in park-like settings with trails linkage.

First of many firsts was the inter-municipal cooperation set up to create the Georgian Trail and a few "dried worms on a plate" in Collingwood on the urban planning side that allowed new suburbs to have pedestrian access between streets.

Next came the army of volunteers willing to sit on committees, planning meetings and out in the field, blazing trails, taming the bush.

Pivotal to the redevelopment of Collingwood into a commercial hub serving recreational tourism was the recapturing of significant portions of the waterfront and rehabilitation of the land into parkland and trails.

In 1989, the Director of Leisure Services for the Town of Collingwood, Peter Dunbar wanted to document Georgian trails usage, showing the key to a newly created link between three small communities was recreation based economic development. He spent the summer surveying folks on the Georgian trail and produced a report entitled The Economic impact of Georgian Trail on the Town of Collingwood and Region that, until the publication of the 2005 survey and report, was one of the few published data collections about trails in Ontario. Repeating the survey questions in 2005 with added questions related to health and physical activity on both the Georgian Trail and the Collingwood Trails Network was the focus of the 2006 survey and is the nucleus of the presentation offered to the 18th National Trails Symposium.

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